As goes Ohio: Economic changes in the heartland

Maybe you think of my Ohio as an industrial state: steel, rubber, cars. But not any more. The top 14 employers in the state are health care providers, retailers and a bank. Wal-Mart is at the top of the list, 52,000 Buckeyes strong. Oh, for the days of Goodyear, Republic Steel and NCR.

People who cross Ohio on their way west by car or train usually remember the plains of northwest Ohio, a sea of bean and corn fields that continues west for a thousand miles. Today, though, only 74,000 Ohioans farm for a living, a number that continues to dwindle.

If you come into the state through the Cumberland Gap, you can't mistake the Appalachian terrain and culture of that part of the state. Many of the jobs in that part of the state are still dependent on harvesting natural resources.

This diversity is why Ohio often serves as a microcosm for national politicians (last fall, I thought Obama and McCain had moved into my neighborhood, since I saw them more often than I saw my wife.) We're red and blue, black and white, blue- and white-collar, with age distribution, education, income and home ownership all near the national norm. So how are we doing, recession-wise?

Not so well. Like most states, our government is in deep trouble, and every month or two takes another bite out of state program budgets. The latest round will cut many workers who are responsible for following up reports of child abuse.

Sales tax income is down. Property taxes are down. Income tax revenue is down. Still, many of our politicians want us to refuse federal stimulus funds because they will create expectations that we can't sustain. My opinion? Ask a starving man if he'd rather have a meal today and none tomorrow, or none today so that he doesn't get his hopes up for more meals to come, and he'll order the meal (with dessert) every time.

Unemployment is taking its toll, now up to 9.7 percent statewide. Unevenly distributed, too. Many Ohio River counties are hovering around 15 percent. Counties along Lake Erie, many with one-industry towns related to the auto industry, are also struggling. The 3-Cs, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, are doing better. Yet they're receiving the lion's share of federal stimulus funds. Go figure.

We're not keeping up with the Sun Belt in mortgage disaster, but we still managed to place seven metropolitan areas in RealtyTrac's list of the top 100 U.S. areas for foreclosures. Ouch.

Our politicians have chugged the green Kool-Aid, and are waxing enthusiastic with visions of the first freshwater-based wind farm on the south shore of Lake Erie, a bullet train whizzing us from hither to yon, and factories once again buzzing with activity, this time building fuel cells, solar panels and the like. Fortunate for us that no other state has thought to pursue the green tech market.

Education is a hot topic here, as the state struggles to comply with a court decision requiring school funding across the state be more equitable. Since most schools are funded by property taxes, the problem is intractable. The governor's plan as currently proposed would extend the school year, to the "delight" of both kids and teachers. 86.3 percent of Ohioans over 25 have a high school diploma, above the national average. However, we're below average in college degrees, despite the number of colleges in the state. The $40,000 a year tuition at the state's private colleges could be one reason, but most of us blame OSU. If they'd had a more respectable showing in even one of the national football championship games in which they've appeared in recent years, our kids wouldn't be so ashamed to attend there.

The gaming industry continues to hound us, although we've voted down casinos time and time again. However, the current climate of desperation might finally tip the scales. I suspect that once casinos are evenly distributed across the country, all the states will discover that the pie is smaller than they thought. The millions from the state lottery that were to bolster our schools have been used by many districts to replace, rather than supplement, local funding, so I have no reason to believe casino money will be used any more shrewdly.

It's hard as hell to pass a school levy today. Canal Winchester, near Columbus, is on the ballot for the fourth time next month, and has already informed some of the teachers that they will lose their jobs if the levy fails. Sadly, it doesn't have a chance to pass.

Many of us in Ohio are wondering where we go from here. The farmers wonder about the price of crops. Will ethanol continue to provide an expanded market for corn? The boom-and-bust cycle of corn, beans and wheat makes their year-to-year viability a crap shoot.

Blue-collar workers in company towns like Wilmington, where the DHL hub is closing, throwing thousands out of work, are wondering where their next job will come from.

The boomers, especially industrial workers, are wondering if their pensions are secure. Young homeowners are wondering if their houses will ever be worth the value of the loan they took out to pay for them. The Ohio Historical Society, is wondering if we even care about our heritage any more. If so, why is its budget cut more every year, down to about a buck per person per year? "Closed" signs hang on many of our most important sites.

College graduates are wondering where the jobs are that have a future. Making lattes does not a career make. Appalachian Ohio is wondering how it can get beyond mining coal, cutting timber and providing huge dumps that are filling with East Coast trash.

Most of us are also wondering why the Browns and the Bengals can't win a damn football game occasionally.

I'm wondering how we can recapture our vigor. Ohio offers fertile land, abundant water, inexpensive housing, a moderate climate, an excellent road system, proximity to population centers, a relatively educated work force, affordable cost of living and more culture than you might imagine.

However, we also have thousands upon thousands of abandoned properties, a workforce accustomed to unions, inner-city violence, pollution and a tired reputation.

That's what we're wondering about here in flyover America. And since we represent the rest of the country, I expect that you're worried about the same things ... or will be soon.

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